St. Philip Lutheran Church
27 November 2022 + Advent 1a
Rev. Josh Evans
There are two types of people:
First, there’s the type of person who, at the stroke of midnight on November 1, instantly changes out the carved pumpkins for a brightly lit and spectacularly trimmed Christmas tree, usually while belting out the holiday tunes blaring from the 24/7 Christmas music radio station. Before long, their house usually looks like something out of a Hallmark movie, and you’d hardly know just hours before there were ever trick-or-treaters at their door.
Then, there’s the type of person who insists on waiting. “Turkey first, then Santa!” they say. November purists … as those of us in the first camp might call them.
While my tree didn’t make it up until this past week, it’s not for lack of desire. My apartment has long been filled with the aroma of balsam fir candles, and my car radio has been set to 93.9 ever since they made the holiday music switch. And I have, admittedly, already indulged in my share of holiday-themed beverages at Starbucks.
Whichever camp you identify with, though, I suspect we can all agree on one thing: Advent is jarring.
“Wake up!” our texts scream at us. “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep!” Paul writes. “Salvation is near!” Isaiah prophesies about God’s impending judgment on a people who had strayed from God’s teachings and about a future day when war and violence will be no more. More emphatically and even with a tinge of dread, Jesus calls us to keep awake because no one knows the day or hour of the coming of the Son of Man. Even our prayer of the day calls on Christ himself to “stir up [his] power.”
This is a season of waking up, of being called to attention, of making ready for the coming of Immanuel, God-with-us.
Advent is like a wake-up call: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come… Keep awake… Be ready… A time for beating swords into plowshares, for studying peace, and un-learning war…
No wonder Advent comes as such a jolt. Nothing about our culture – especially this time of year – seems to make space for Advent. “Holly, jolly” Christmas music has already been on the radio for weeks, and bright red and green and silver and gold decorations have been in stores even longer. By now, even the most stubborn of the “November purists” has given in. It’s a Christmas takeover … and it seems like there’s no room for Advent.
In this cultural pushing out of Advent and takeover by Christmas, it seems we’ve lost Advent’s wake-up call. In some traditions, there’s actually been a counter-push for expanding Advent to seven weeks, starting three Sundays ago – not a completely novel idea, but really a return to an earlier practice in the church. After all, our texts for the past couple of weeks before Advent often sound rather “Advent-like” – concerned with things like the reign of God and end-times – all calling us to wake up and be ready.
Advent is a little like Lent in that way – a time of preparation and re-orientation ahead of one of the principal celebrations on the church calendar.
So what do we have to prepare for this Advent season?
If we take our cue from Black Friday and consumer marketing, it’s shopping for presents, baking, hosting parties, and decorating… But how easy it is to get bogged down and overwhelmed!
What if, instead, we took advantage of this season to nourish our souls… to take time to pause, to sit still, to reflect, to pray… to sit in the darkness before the dawn, just a little while longer – and on purpose.
Every time Advent’s wake-up call rolls around, I think a lot about the concept of light and darkness. Traditionally, this is the season where we look forward to the dawn, to the coming of the light that dispels the darkness… a season where darkness has come to be viewed as “bad” and light “good.”
But what if we could imagine darkness as a good thing? What if we could dwell in the darkness of this season and learn to walk in the dark?
After all, some of our most significant Bible stories happen in darkness: God creates the world from a murky abyss, Jacob wrestles with God through the night, God leads the Israelites out of slavery under the cover of night, an angel visits Joseph in a dream as he sleeps to tell him of Mary’s pregnancy.
It seems like the Bible is trying to tell us something about darkness. In darkness comes creation, liberation, promise. This is not the darkness of the tomb, but the womb… darkness that is growing new life and giving birth to great hope.
God’s people are invited to dwell in God’s holy darkness that is always birthing something new. After all, Isaiah’s words of prophetic hope and promise of the day of “war no more” come to a people very much in the midst of darkness, destruction, exile, and trauma.
Rushing too quickly to the light of dawn, we might just miss what promises lie waiting in the dark.
All that said: I think there’s actually a third type of person this time of year. It’s the type of person who just isn’t feeling the “holiday spirit.”
Often it’s because of the grief of the recent or not-so-recent loss of a loved one. Maybe there’s one less stocking hanging from the mantle, or one less place setting at the family dinner table this year.
Others of us might look at the state of the world around us – war in Ukraine; hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean; mass shootings at a Walmart in Virginia and a gay nightclub in Colorado.
I suspect a lot of us fall into this third category, whether we have our trees up on November 1st or not.
It’s why some churches have begun to regularly observe “Blue Christmas,” a special service – often coinciding with the winter solstice, also known as “the longest night” – that carves out space for those who aren’t quite feeling “holly” or “jolly.”
As I’ve experienced it, Blue Christmas is a time to intentionally sit in a quiet, prayerful, dimly lit space with all the emotions the season brings.
It is also a time to remember that God is as much in the darkness as in the light – and perhaps, if the stories of our biblical ancestors are any indication, God is felt even more acutely and strongly in the darkness.
That’s not the reason why Advent’s liturgical color is blue – though that would be a convenient transition. Yet, like Blue Christmas, blue Advent extends a similar invitation.
As one writer puts it: “Advent reminds us that God seeks us out where we are right now. Not where we should be by our own or anyone else’s estimation. God seeks us out when we are in exile and when we are suffering, when we are callous and cowardly, when we are more concerned with common sense than faithfulness, when we are fearful and arrogant, when we are lost and broken, when we are sad and alone, when we are traumatized … when we feel forgotten and bored and insignificant and tired, when we are wounded and when we are the ones who are wounding.”
Advent indeed calls us to wake up.
Advent’s wake-up call is less of an alarm clock though – and more of a meditation bell.
Advent calls us to wake up to God’s promises for us.
It doesn’t rush us toward Christmas, or toward feeling how we think we’re “supposed” to feel this time of year.
Advent invites us to linger.
Linger in the darkness. Let your eyes adjust to the night. Give it time. Don’t rush through it just yet.
Even there, even now, God is with us still.